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Artist Javarri Lewis takes inspiration from people in the Black community when painting his brightly colored portraits. Surrounding himself with creative family and friends and taking the time to learn more about his own ancestry play a big part in this Cincinnati artist’s process. / Image courtesy of Javarri Lewis // Published: 10.3.20

Javarri Lewis Creates Vibrant Portraits to Portray Inspiring Black People

When it comes to his brightly hued portraits, self-taught artist Javarri Lewis is inspired by people in the Black community, always focusing on ways he can lift them up through his art. Born and raised in Cincinnati, the local creator, developer, and entrepreneur takes notes from both his creative peers and his family's ancestry through stories passed on by his great-grandma and great-great-great grandma (but more on that below).

Cincinnati Refined: Can you start off by telling me about the ways art plays in your life?

Javarri Lewis: Art has played a major role in my life for as long as I can remember. I have always been interested in creative and DIY projects. I experience some form of art in my life every day, whether it's through photography, creative writing, music, graphic design, and interacting with other creatives in different fields. This helps me to stay inspired when I'm working on a new project or helping others with ideas. I will always look at myself as a student learning and gathering new information.

CR: What is your medium of choice, and can you tell me about your process behind it?

JL: My [mediums] of choice currently are acrylics and enamel paints. Part of my process when it comes to creating portraits is to find example images and archive them. I have hundreds of pictures saved across my different devices that I use for inspiration. Once I land on a few sets of photos, I mock up each piece in photoshop to get a rendering for how the piece may look.

The background really depends on what the piece itself calls for. If it is a custom piece, I usually rely on the client to tell me what their inspiration is, based on what I am going to depict. I like choosing larger canvases because it grants me a larger working surface and it allows the piece to fill up the room when installed. I will also use a few different methods to create, like using stencils, free-hand painting, and projection mapping the piece, depending on how detailed or abstract I intended the portrait to be.

CR: When did you start painting, and what got you interested in it?

JL: I have very creative friends and family members that are into music, dance, and visual arts, so as a kid growing up, it always sparked my interest to do something creative. Grade school, around the 5th grade, is when I became a lot more interested in the visual side of art. Since then, I have always tried to explore as many mediums as possible with many more I have yet to try. I started off working with charcoal and watercolor paint and quickly came to realize I like to work with acrylic paint a lot more.

One of my closest friends growing up would always inspire me because every day he would come and show me a new portrait he made with a single ballpoint pen or a pair of shoes he revived and transformed into an entirely different shoe. I also have worked in ceramics for a while, a medium I took up in high school, where I worked as a ceramic glaze artist for two years.

CR: What’s the hardest part about doing portraits?

JL: I would say the hardest part of doing my portraits honestly is choosing the colorways for each portrait and mixing the different colors to achieve the vibrant look I set out for in my head. I love doing portraits because I get to capture specific human emotions. I like portraits that can captivate viewers' attention and draw them into the painting. I enjoy painting an individual's face because it demands the viewer's entire focus on the person depicted.

CR: Is there an overall theme that ties your works together?

JL: The world inspires everything that I create. My surroundings inspire me. Nature inspires me. But a huge source of my inspiration comes from Black people. Black people on the street, Black people when I travel, Black people across the world, my family and friends—these are all things that run across my mind when creating. I'm constantly asking myself how I can portray Black faces that can inspire and uplift ourselves and my community. This is one of the reasons I like to use a lot of vibrant colors in the portraits I create.

I am also really interested in learning and uncovering a lot of my family's history. I recently did a sit-down interview with my great-grandmother who is 92 years old to ask her different questions about her life growing up in Cincinnati and about some of our family history. She was able to tell me stories about her grandmother growing up, which is my great-great-great grandmother. By gaining information like this, I feel I have a responsibility to always show Black people and our ancestors in a regal and positive light.

CR: When you aren’t producing your colorful pieces, what do you like to do?

JL: When I'm not doing portraits, I love hanging out with my family and I also like to help my family and friends with their creative ideas whenever I can. Another hobby of mine that I am recently enjoying is DJing at home and for my family gatherings, which was something my aunt introduced me to a few years back.

CR: Do you have a favorite piece, and if so, what makes it your favorite?

JL: I don't actually have a favorite piece at the moment that I have created. My favorite is usually the one I am working on at the moment, but sometimes I'm working on two or three pieces at a time. All the portraits I create are special to me because I can recall the amount of time it took for me to complete them, what I was listening to when I created them, and the circumstances that led me to that particular piece.

CR: Where can people find your work on display and/or to purchase?

JL: Currently, I have portraits available for sale inside of Pause Cincy Wellness Shop (2908 Vine Street). I also have portraits on display inside of Noble Barber & Beauty (2915 Highland Avenue) and blaCk Coffee Lounge (824 Elm Street).

CR: What advice or tips do you have for aspiring artists?

JL: My advice for aspiring artists is to just start creating something today, even if you think it is something small, just have the mindset to create. I would also say collaborating with different artists, creatives, and businesses can also help to inspire you to create, especially when you feel stuck in your process. Another thing that helps me is to step out of your comfort zone and preferred medium from time to time to keep you engaged. Write down notes, keep archives of different ideas or pieces you love, and always be opening to learning and remain a student.

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See examples of Javarri Lewis’ work in the gallery above. To see more or to inquire about a certain piece, visit his Instagram or Twitter. To commission a portrait of your own, visit his website.